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What Exactly Can You Learn on a Mobile Phone? Part II

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Here's the second part of my original interview with Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist who studies new media use in young people. Ito is co-author of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media, and has been studying the subject of how kids interact with mobile devices.

Ito talks about whether intervention programs and educational outreach make formal schooling more interesting or relevant.

"A lot of kids were doing amazing things around their interest, but very few of those kids were able to pursue that and translate that into context of adult world," she says regarding case studies she observed.

Ito also addresses the difference between letting kids experiment and figure out what they want to learn on their own versus setting them on a specific course.

Q. Is there any research that shows mobile phones are raising literacy or reading skills? Does it matter?


A. I see opportunities that digital mobile devices can provide for learning in three ways: information access; social connection and peer learning; and expression and creative production.

A mobile phone does really well and delivers better in the first two than the PC does, because it’s ubiquitous and demand-driven. When we’re out somewhere with family, we have a question, whatever it might be, there’s instant ability to access information. The ability to access information within a social face-to-face context is actually a powerful enabler of learning. You don’t have to be locked into a screen in solitary mode to access this big ecosystem of information. You feel a pervasive connection to that. These devices become a way of connecting, ideally providing a social support.

What it doesn’t deliver as well on is the actual production of knowledge and culture and things like that. It’s not a platform that’s optimized for that. Most activated learning is making use of multiple platforms and learning opportunities in multiple settings. And the mobile phone is a device that could potentially knit together those multiple contexts. Whether it’s an iPad or a phone, it’s a stable platform that kids can carry from home to school or after school programs to cobble together resources and social networks.

But they do have to have those more intensive computing kinds of spaces to do more sophisticated forms of writing and production and self expression, and that’s the problem with relying exclusively on a mobile platform. It’s much more of a connector and enabler that can bring knowledge to more settings in daily lives, but not the platform you want to rely on exclusively.

Q. How do you think programs like the Digital Youth Network are making an impact on giving a leg up to low-income kids?

A. The results are still coming in intervention, but I can speak about what we observed in our digital youth study, and the differences these programs, certain forms of access, and new media opportunities have made.

What I saw that was interesting is that class and privilege are incredibly important.

We found that middle class kids had a wealth of opportunities, but had little space for autonomy and exploration, because their lives were over-scheduled. They were on a track to do a certain thing, and were parented in the context of risk and fear about what they should and shouldn’t be doing that worked against a certain kind agency and exploration and certain kind of learning because they knew what they were supposed to learn.

We found that when less privileged kids were given access to the tools and trust and space to mess around with technology, and it was often incredibly transformative for them. They would do incredibly creative things, and it wasn’t necessarily getting them to fast-track to something, they were just messing around and enjoying their sense of agency.

Q. What do you mean by their "sense of agency?"

A. So for example, we were looking at a high school that had an open-minded computer lab teacher and a local computer kids' club. They’d get together and play network games, set up businesses on their own to refurbish computers and sell on eBay and take proceeds and do organizing and activating on multi-user games. They were doing creative and innovative and entrepreneurial activities, using new media. It was really interesting. It was a space where they could exercise a new kind of agency. And we saw quite a few of case studies.

Q. How is that kind of agency helpful in their lives?

A. It has the potential to ignite a transformative identity shift if it’s not in a context where kids are given a lot of agency in what they explore.

Mimi Ito

For kids who are alienated from mainstream structures of schooling, they don’t feel like they have choices in their own identity and trajectory, so for them to be trusted to choose and have an interest is important. This is the foundation of  the model of interest-driven learning -- the voluntary nature and the fact that kids have chosen what they want to specialize in and pursue has been incredibly important in fostering an authentic learning identity for kids.

A lot of kids in schools that aren’t structured around this more progressive philosophy of learning are not often given opportunities to allow their own voice and choice in learning. They’re either in environments that may be specialized already that kids have chosen, or they’re in environments like a computer lab where the teacher opens doors to kid and sets baseline rule for behavior, but allows them to do what they wanted.

Q. Do you have any sense whether these opportunities have a lasting effect?

A. You have to follow kids over a longer haul. In our case studies, we had a lot of kids who were young adults telling us their retrospectives.

A lot of kids point to some early experiences they have in connecting with other people who they respected who share those interests, and be able to choose the interests they have and mobilize their learning, instead of what they were told to learn. Somehow that set of factors was transformative in producing an identity in them that they were able to have a sense of efficacy that’s tied to their engagement in area of interest. They could mobilize learning and knowledge acquisition that set them on a different track in terms of how they approached learning.

Often a lot of kids will have the experience of empowered learner in an area of interest, but they won’t have the support to translate that into domains that are more formal or recognized by the adult world.

That’s where we feel like there’s a gap and our educational outreach approach and ecology and meeting kids where they are, but also making those things relevant to things like formal schooling and accreditation and career relevance trajectory.

Q. So does their interest-driven path lead to what we define as success in adulthood?

A. That's the big question I’d have: a lot of kids are doing amazing things around their interest, but very few of those kids were able to pursue that and translate that into context of adult world. So that’s the question. It’s the kids who can make that translation who can become incredibly successful.

A lot of it is how we think of relation between play and work. I’ve also talked to passionate hobbyists who see work as something separate and want to keep it separate. It’s the characteristic of a particular cut of middle class who want to see their passions aligned with their work in a particular way.


At the level of childhood experience, the more even within the context of K-12 trajectory, if we can use these interest-driven contexts in a way to reduce alienation with formal schooling, even putting aside work issues, that would be a huge plus for the kids.

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